Why the nuclear fusion breakthrough matters

For the first time, scientists were able to cause a fusion reaction with a net energy gain.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California made a pretty cool breakthrough in nuclear fusion this month.

Why the nuclear fusion breakthrough matters

Fusion is when atoms fuse together to form larger atoms, producing energy. If we could harness it, it’d be a clean energy source that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or radioactive waste.

Fusion is what powers the sun…

… but in a man-made setting, causing that reaction takes more energy than it produces…

Until Dec. 5, at 1:03am, when LLNL scientists conducted a fusion experiment with a net energy gain, per The New York Times.

How? It’s a complicated process (which you can read about here), but essentially, they fired 192 lasers at a peppercorn-sized target filled with hydrogen atoms, replicating the heat and pressure of a star’s core.

What’s next?

The breakthrough is key in proving that it can be done, but scaling from a lab experiment to powering the nation’s toasters won’t happen overnight.

So far, private fusion companies have pulled together ~$5B, and the Department of Energy has called for a pilot plant and $50m in research grants, per Politico.

LLNL director Kimberly S. Budil said that, with “concerted effort and investment,” a power plant could be built after “a few decades of research.”

Fun fact: Bill Nye pointed out that nearly 80 years ago, on Dec. 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and his University of Chicago colleagues created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, leading to today’s power plants.

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